1940 - 2011

With the death of Rod Pipe, which occurred unexpectedly on 1st April, one of the most brilliant stars in the ringing firmament has sadly passed into history. His influence was immense and a wide circle of fellow ringers will share with his family and friends a great sense of loss. In the field of composition and theory, he was a man with a technical mastery and unresting imagination equal to that of any artist; in performance, he had the ambition and focus of a concert musician in an activity often regarded as an amateur hobby. If anyone could convey to others, simply by example, the conviction that change-ringing can be a serious artistic vocation, he could. His exceptional achievements range over many aspects of ringing; and he did not undervalue its social dimension. His attendance and punctuality at the tower, his maintaining of contact with the elderly and infirm, his readiness to support the broader interests of ringing in various ways, his approachability on questions great and small, his friendly greeting of visiting strangers: these would put many a lesser ringer to shame.

Roderick Wilgress Pipe was born in April 1940 at Grundisburgh in rural Suffolk, and he grew up there amid a strong ringing culture – a whole network of friends, elders and mentors, and some of them had outstanding records. It should not be forgotten that Ipswich was nationally the leading centre of Maximus ringing from the 1880s until 1939; Charles Sedgley and George Symonds, who had been joint conductors at St Mary le Tower for many years, were family friends. The East Anglian Pipe family – still thriving of course – has included ringers over many generations: one, James Wilgress, is known to have rung a peal at St Mary’s in 1817. Rod’s parents, Cecil (always known as Jim) and Sylvia were both accomplished ringers, and from a very young age Rod had picked up the ringers’ obsession with numbers, and had begun to explore them with the help of old copies of The Ringing World and other texts he found in the house. He would ask his beloved brother George to look over figures he had worked out on a piece of Shredded Wheat packet. John Mayne, also of course from a ringing family and then living for a short time nearby, was a childhood friend and with George an enviably active ringer. As an onlooker only (a very attentive and impressionable one, no doubt), Rod went with the family on the ringing outings his father had arranged, including a weekend in Birmingham in July 1948.

It was George who taught Rod to handle a bell (and who described the circumstances fondly in his memorable funeral tribute). By that time (1950) George, who was senior by five years, had substantial ringing experience and had indeed become already noted as the youngest ever peal-ringer. Rod was thought by his stern father (a former Guardsman) not yet strong enough to learn – he was not physically robust as a child – and so Rod asked George if they could go down to the tower without asking anyone. It was Holy Week, a time when the bells were fully muffled and the boys were on holiday. By lunchtime he had learnt.

His first peal was at Grundisburgh on 26 May 1951: an inside bell to Kent T.B. Major called by his father. On 3 November the same year – aged 11½  – he rang his second peal, which he had composed and which he called himself. His schoolboy handwriting proudly records in his peal book ‘First as conductor & first attempt. First peal of Royal.’ A short write-up about this and a photograph with his winning smile appeared in the RW a couple of weeks later (1951 p.731).

By the time he left school (Woodbridge, to which he had followed his brother) he had rung 75 peals. George had called several of the earliest ones, but a gradually increasing proportion Rod conducted. This included Bristol Major which he called at his home tower a few days before his 13th birthday. Some of their local peal attempts, George recounts, were not all plain sailing and one can imagine how Rod’s unusual mental agility and steadiness under fire soon turned into an ambition to analyse and master the whole business. His first 12-bell peal, a significant moment in the light of his later life, was at Lincoln – Yorkshire Maximus called by John Mayne – in August 1958.

Rod’s arrival in Birmingham dates from September 1959 when he took his place to study mathematics at the university. John Anderson tells the story of George Fearn having received a letter from Jim Pipe asking him to ‘please look after my lad’. George handed it to John saying ‘He’s your age – you do it.’ So Rod was met at the station by John, and was soon introduced by him to the city’s ringing scene. First impressions were that the newcomer lacked the physique to be useful for any back-bell ringing, and, as John says, things got worse when they went to the pub and this country lad would accept only a half of cider… One can picture Rod’s lean, angular figure coming under the beady eye of George Fearn, who with his habitual debunking wit had been known to say out of the corner of his mouth ‘Watch those left-over-right ringers’ or ‘those Suffolk ringers’ (Rod was of course both): ‘they’re always slow at handstroke.’ If there was a grain of truth in the latter remark – not directed at Rod – it indicated (as George Pipe has pointed out) a perceptible difference of tradition.

Immediately, Rod was drawn into ringing with the Fearns, Peter Border and all the Brummies, and was equally active when on vacation back in Suffolk (five Birmingham peals in the month of June 1960, plus five Suffolk ones). Within a year he was undertaking the conducting of the majority of the weekly peals at St Philip’s Cathedral, the tower with its crystalline Gillett twelve that one could say became his spiritual home. Of his ultimate total of 2,033 peals, no fewer than 850 were rung there. Not all of these Cathedral performances were on 12, particularly in the first decades when Major and somewhat less Royal were common, with a very few odd-bell peals. Maximus was indeed his main field, his career total 836 performances, of which he conducted almost exactly half. Several of these peals were at the very cutting edge of complexity.

It should be added here that, keen as he was, he understood perfectly that peal-ringing is not everything. Throughout his career he was a most constant Sunday ringer, for many years at King’s Norton, at St Philip’s and latterly at St Martin’s. He served and supported the St Martin’s Guild and was a member of the Central Council for 9 years. He enjoyed his membership of the College Youths and his links with a wide circle of ringing friends. And though ringing was certainly his principal interest, other activities from which he drew much satisfaction included chess, photography, hill walking, gardening and astronomy. This last was introduced to him in childhood by the Witnesham postman George Fleming, a ringer at Ipswich and Grundisburgh; Rod and his brother used to cycle over and stay with him sometimes during holiday time. In his retirement, Rod even went as far as China to witness an eclipse. Foreign travel was greatly enjoyed, with and without ringing or astronomical motives, and in recent years he also made regular visits to Ireland to see his daughter Helen.

Norman Goodman, one of the established Birmingham ringers, with his wife Jessie took a great – one might say almost parental – liking to Rod as a young man and offered him lodging in their home in King’s Norton, a happy arrangement which lasted until his marriage. (As it turned out, Norman became Rod’s leading peal-ringing colleague with 666 peals together. Peter Border was next in order with 581.) Norman worked for Cadbury’s, and it was at his suggestion that Rod after university applied for a job there. Rod had a good career in management in the famous chocolate company until the mid 1980s, being highly regarded as an independent thinker and a strong contributor in general. He and Gill (née Schofield, an accomplished ringer herself) had married in 1967 and their children David and Helen were growing up during this period – David showing early evidence of a campanological gene.

The insight, discipline, conducting skill and sheer quick-wittedness that Rod displayed in the belfry soon became legendary. When he was still in his early 20s he rescued a peal of London Royal at Chesterfield which had been miscalled by an eminent conductor from the capital: Rod countermanded the “Stand!” and gave instructions how the bells could be brought round without falseness. In his mid 40s, he was invited to call the Queen’s 60th birthday peal at St Paul’s Cathedral, when it was still rare for visiting ringers to take part. He composed a 5,060 of Stedman Cinques for the occasion.

The commitment to practical ringing of the highest quality, which Rod continued for half a century, was integral to the training and motivation of a wide circle of up-and-coming ringers. During long periods of responsibility for arranging the weekly peals at St Philip’s, through the 1970s, 80s and 90s, he made an outstanding contribution to the development of individual talents. He identified ability and devised progressive challenges which stimulated very high levels of skill. There was a magnetism at work; and in reviewing the names of those who passed through this experience in Birmingham, one can surely claim that Rod has been the inspiration of many of today’s leading exponents across the country. Mark Regan indicated in his eulogy both the seriousness of the enterprise and great après-belfry relaxation and entertainment. Rod did not lack a sense of fun: on the contrary.

With Rod, as with almost no other, one felt an imperative, because of his personal commitment, to keep his good opinion by avoiding any mis-blows: he sustained a culture of excellence which was demonstrably a process of ‘levelling up’. His intensity, particularly in his younger days, could be intimidating and uncomfortable to witness. But as Oliver Goldsmith (whose lines about a village schoolmaster Rod had by heart) might have written

A man severe he was, and stern to view …
Yet he was kind; or if severe in aught,
The love he bore to ringing was in fault.

In later years he developed a more subtle sense of leadership. He made a point of being amicable afterwards with any to whom he had given a hard time during a ringing performance. He engaged cheerfully with beginners making their first strides, and complimented them if they had shown proper determination. And he was not without self-awareness. In a recent RW correspondence about ‘scary ringers’, he explained his approach in what proved to be the last of his letters for publication (2010 p.909) – as always, he was cogent and illuminating:

‘… errors in change-ringing frequently demand urgent action … I try to modulate the response to the person and the situation and, of course, I get it wrong at times, sometimes overreact, sometimes get angry … The point is, we are all collectively responsible to the band we are ringing with: first and foremost to do our best, but also to accept that things can get heated, even ‘scary’. The time to sort out bruised feelings is afterwards.’

In fact, he did not even need to be on the end of a rope: simply his presence, or your knowledge that he was outside listening, was enough to inspire a healthy trepidation that any flaw would be repaid by a piercing look or a bantering comment afterwards to make sure you knew he knew … Even highly experienced ringers felt an urge to try and raise their performance in a long length when he was due to do a stint as umpire.  He made everybody ring better than they thought they could. This effect was surely one of his most remarkable achievements.

His practical involvement was clearly integral also to the advances in the theory and techniques of change-ringing which he was able to conceive and develop. He was full of new ideas in composition, method construction and, importantly, the relationship between them. This thinking produced many excellent methods deservedly popular today, and many compositions in existing methods designed to generate musical combinations not previously exploited. A traditional area for which this is particularly true was Stedman Cinques, for which he produced peals of great musicality but sometimes suitable only for the virtuoso conductor – a number of them contained calls distributed throughout all 22 positions, which was highly unconventional. A new level of complexity was introduced to 12-bell ringing in the early 1980s with Orion Surprise Maximus, which he devised in collaboration with Peter Border. A more recent innovation has been ‘link’ methods, his revolutionary concept in Spliced ringing.All these ideas have had a huge impact on his fellow composers. (A detailed appreciation by David Hull of Rod’s legacy in this field is to be published in The Ringing World shortly.)

His positive liking for competitiveness, profoundly in his nature, he never hid: he enjoyed so much its capacity to stimulate and to test the limits of the possible – it was evident too in his devotion to sport (and Ipswich Town FC) and even in his belfry repartee. He loved a good banter. So it should be no surprise that contest-ringing, and the prestige that the Birmingham team acquired, gave him a vast amount of pleasure. He was in the winning side in the national 12-bell competition 16 times in 31 appearances, usually conducting, and no one could doubt how important his contribution was to the team’s record. Recognising the essentially sporting character of such events, he did not underestimate the significance of high team morale, nor the need to develop strategic thinking. On any challenging high-profile occasion, his temperament and leadership were superb.

The application of computer technology to the art was a further area of his achievement. This included work for the Peal Compositions Committee which he chaired during the 1980s. It was when microcomputers were becoming available, and he sought to establish the reliability of new processes for vetting figures proposed for publication. In recent years he saw the case for using technology to assist in umpiring ringing contests and was closely involved in resolving the immense technical issues (described in Richard Grimmett’s recent article on the ‘HawkEar’ project, p.553). He had from the beginning grasped the potential of modern IT in his theoretical work and had an explorer’s fun with its technical advances: Chris Kippin has written that ‘Rod was excited by the musical possibilities of ringing on higher numbers. Visitors to his home might be greeted by the sound of the principle ‘Thursday’ on 24 bells emanating from his computer, with musical effects quite unlike anything currently attainable by human ringers on real bells. In this he was beginning to approach modern developments in the field of electronically synthesised music.’

A mould-breaking initiative of a different kind, now 20 and more years ago, was the concept of a peal of 16 at St Martin’s Birmingham which he promoted and which became the first such ring ever. The idea arose out of the need to replace the bellframe of the existing bells and Rod was persuasive regarding the potential of 16 in terms both of change-ringing and (secondarily) of how the originality of the project would help to secure funding. The 1980s were an unsettled period in his personal life, and after Cadbury’s he had time working (and of course ringing) in Oxford and then in Bristol. It was a rich silver lining for his Bull Ring colleagues that he returned to seek work in Birmingham and then gave a lot of his time to pursuing potential donors for the new bells. His skill in business strategy and presentation gave great impetus to the funding effort which, mainly through commercial sponsorships, achieved the necessary sum of £200,000 within three years. (Good fortune was also restored in personal terms with his new marriage to Mary Rees in 1990, and a new career in management information for the West Midlands Police.)

Rod and his son David (whose ringing achievement is one of few to stand comparison) had been members of the St Martin’s Band since 1982, and ten years later David became Conductor with the task of establishing the new tradition of 16-bell ringing. Following David’s departure for Cambridgeshire in 2005, Rod accepted the conductorship, though it was a role he said he would like to see in younger hands, and limited his tenure to three years for this reason. In fact he fulfilled the office with typical initiative and exemplary care. He continued on many Sunday mornings until his death to call service touches of Stedman Cinques, always musically interesting and extemporized so that the bells ran round only a fraction of a minute before the clock hands showed 11am. The fun of that, the art of it, all the mastery that he quietly enjoyed, will remain a fond and enduring memory at St Martin’s.

Rod’s vitality and physical energy, so characteristic and so stimulating, have made it especially hard to come to terms with his sudden absence from us. In the face of illness he was indomitable – Mary’s exact word for him, voiced in her funeral speech. All the Pipe family circle will, we hope, have received some comfort from the many memorial peals and messages of condolence, which indicate how widely and deeply Rod was held in esteem and affection. As David mentioned in his tribute, it is a great sadness for him and Cecilia that their two young boys Henry and Alfie will grow to maturity – including ringing maturity, for sure – without their eminent grandfather, who took so much pride in them and loved them so warmly. Henry (aged 8) had been due to ring a peal with Rod in the Easter holidays. (It would have been his grandfather’s first handbell peal, but the veteran Henry’s third!) Rod’s fondness for hill-walking, which the grandsons did experience firsthand, all the time he spent in churchyards, and his love of English and poetry make apt these lines from Gray’s Elegy (which he knew from early days):

One morn I missed him on the custom’d hill,
Along the heath and near his favourite tree;
Another came; nor yet beside the rill,
Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he …

We all miss him enormously. At root he was a consummate and original musician in the field of change-ringing, and his achievements will live on as long as the art continues. As was said of Sir Christopher Wren (the subject of a favourite clerihew): ‘Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.’


Roderick W. Pipe an appreciation

I graduated one year behind Roderick Pipe from Birmingham University, where I spent six years of absolute bliss ringing with some of the finest ringers (and people) you could ever meet.

Roderick Pipe was one of the finest ringers who ever lived: his aura made everyone he was ringing with want to know the method, stick to it and strike their best. To be invited to ring with him was an honor and a priviledge, and I had that honor on many wonderful occasions. Roderick was an exceptionally talented composer on all numbers of bells, particularly the higher numbers. Many of his compositions are true classics that often are a challenge to ring, call and conduct. For example, to ring in one of his compositions of 5021 Glasgow Surprise Major (which come round at handstroke after some overwhelmingly beautiful music in the last course) is cause for celebration. He also was a master conductor, one of those very rare conductors who knows where all the bells are all the time, whatever the number. He was a tall, courteous and kindly man, much like his father Cecil Pipe of Grundisburgh, Suffolk. Most of all he was my friend and I shall miss him. It was a priviledge to know you, Roddy. Rest in peace my friend.

Northeastern University
Boston, USA

The family was really shocked and saddened to hear of Rod’s passing. He has given a huge contribution to ringing in Birmingham for many many years. He did much work in raising the money for the completion of the 16 bells at St Martin in the Bull ring and he remained, up to his passing, at the forefront of method construction, composition and conducting.

The construction of Orion Surprise Maximus, which I am led to believe was a joint effort between Rod Pipe and Peter Border, was first rung at Birmingham Cathedral. It took five consecutive Thursdays of practice to ring, and a peal was successfully rung at the fifth attempt.

He will be greatly missed by his family, friends and acquaintances. Our heartfelt sympathy goes to his family at this difficult time.


Rod Pipe’s membership of and contribution to the Central Council

Rod represented the St Martin’s Guild on the Central Council from 1970 until 1987. He served on the Peal Compositions Committee from 1978 to 1987 and was Chairman from 1979 until his resignation. As a committee chairman he was also an ex officio member of the Administrative Committee.

Rod took over the helm of the Committee at a time when the publication of compositions in The Ringing World was somewhat haphazard. Rod sought to modernise the approach by making the Committee the central clearing house for compositions, trying to ensure that limited space was used to best advantage and selecting compositions for publication which had musical or innovative qualities. He also implemented rigorous procedures to try to ensure that everything published was correct, complete and true. On the odd occasions when errors slipped through the net he was at pains to investigate thoroughly what had gone wrong.

During Rod’s chairmanship the Committee worked on several collections of compositions for publication. The Popular Major and Stedman Caters and Cinques collections were both published in 1981, followed by the Spliced Minor collection in 1988, for which the Committee was strengthened by the inimitable Harold Chant. Work also continued with collections of general purpose Major compositions and Stedman Triples, subsequently published on line.

The early 1980s saw the advent of the microcomputer in the home environment and the Committee, under Rod’s direction, was quick to recognise both the advantages and pitfalls of this development. Procedures were set up to vet new peal-proving programs: in parallel with this the Committee made a case to Council to purchase a BBC microcomputer, and this was used for some years to format compositions for publication and to build up collections. With 20-odd years’ hindsight this may seem pretty small beer, but at the time it was cutting-edge stuff.

As Chairman of the Committee Rod was firm but fair, always acknowledging committee members as volunteers who had to fit committee work amongst other commitments. He was a genial host of meetings at his home and a popular visitor in others’. Under his chairmanship the Committee set new standards and his influence in this sphere is still felt today.




A light-hearted tribute

When I wrote the report for the 2009 12 Bell Final at St Paul’s (where Birmingham were beaten into second place by St Paul’s), I introduced a light hearted version of Douglas Adams’ Meaning of Liff. The day after that issue of the RW was published; I received a typically succinct and prophetic email from Rod Pipe:

Most enjoyable.
Crediton (n): A time of reckoning; when debts are settled.
Kindest regards

I had intended to pursue the Meaning of Liff theme but never got round to it, but I had jotted some ideas down to send to Rod at some point. I think he would have appreciated them.

Stratfield Mortimer, Berkshire

Whimple (adj): The sickly state of nerves felt by one who has not learnt the method properly for a Rod peal. Usually experienced during the opening rounds.
Taunton (n): A reminder by Rod of a past, but not forgotten, misdemeanour.
Painswick (n): The involuntary wince made by one who has just committed a striking error in the vicinity of Rod.
Dorking (n): One who consistently manages to park closest to the tower entrance.
Much Cowarne (adj): The uneasiness felt by a passenger on a car journey from, say, Inveraray to Carlisle.
Waverley (adv): technique employed to emphasize a point
Greens Norton (n): Type of blazer.
Sweffling (adv): the futile actions (e.g. shuffling of feet, exaggerated looking up at ceiling and tutting): of one trying to disguise a method mistake as an unexpected bell drop.
Flore (v): To keep looking downwards and remain expressionless during a peal, in the hope that the mistake you made was either not noticed or more preferably blamed on someone else.
Outwell (v): To stare at one engaged in Floreing. This must last until the perpetrator looks up to confirm that the flore was successful. A more successful Flore-counter is achieved if more than one band member Outwells.
Sheepy Magna (n): Type of grin. Usually made by one whose Flore has been successfully Outwelled.
Lower Slaughter (n): The result of consecutively making the same mistake in the same place on the front: “That’s three times you’ve done that!”
Upper Slaughter (n): The result of consecutively making the same mistake in the same place at the back: “Wake up Boy!”
Barnes (n): A frequent recipient of a Lower or Upper Slaughter.

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